[Notable Reads] A Tibetan Revolutionary: The Political Life and Times of Bapa Phüntso Wangye

Leaders of the Tibet Work Committee, 1951

For many reasons, the story of Phünwang’s life can provide much insight into our understanding of one important period of modern Tibetan history. The existing literature on modern Tibet has undeniably been monopolized by the voices of Tibetans such as lamas, lay officials, and aristocrats who dominated the traditional semifeudal society and opposed modernization. Their accounts tend to present an orthodox “good Tibetans against bad Han Chinese” thesis, and have become the face of Tibetan nationalism in Western literature. However, we should acknowledge the role of other Tibetans, among whom Phünwang is one of the most important, fighting for very different Tibetan nations, within the complex and intricate story of modern Tibet.


In His Bible

Let America know and ponder on this: there is something more frightening than Cain killing Abel, and that is Washington killing Spartacus

-Victor Hugo


When I wake, two lost souls will take me from my cold bunk. I have resisted enough now, but I will not go willingly. I will be dragged before their hateful kind, borne witness to the final defeat of evil in this land. But tonight I saw the Meteor return, love, and I will mount that scaffold with unhealed but untrembling feet, knowing now that you are by my side. They have sent their priests here, my final resting place, and I spat at their unholy ministrations. I prayed for their destruction. They will leave the noose around my dead, unblessed neck. They will write lying testaments to my savagery. But know that of this — their — disease, this whole world will be purged in blood. I promise it by deed and design.


Seizing Freedom – David Roediger


Why did I read this?

VersoBooks is a leading leftwing publishing house that specializes in array of social, political, historical and cultural subjects ranging from Critical Theory to Economics. It’s certainly up there on my list of favorite book distributors.

I caught Roediger’s latest release on holiday sale, and since I’m always in the market for studies on Reconstruction, I thought I’d give this a shot, my first read of the author. While I’m familiar with the general background and lead-up to Reconstruction in America, arguably the most egalitarian period in the nation’s history, this book promised a more detailed look at the ordinary, detailed facets of life during this period of history. In that expectation, I was not disappointed. Roediger demonstrates radical attitudinal changes amongst Northerners with respect to the possibilities of black (and women’s) emancipation with such artifacts as anti-racist envelope designs; paintings depicting the social power of women – particularly in the care of disabled veterans; and even popular jokes at the time (“the runaway master”) that showed a world turning upside down. The review below summarizes some additional takeaways and suggestions for further study.


Since taking up independent study of The Civil War and Reconstruction about 10 years ago, I’ve found myself strongly on the side of an historiography that, taking Eric Foner’s research as a foundation, frames this period of American history as a revolutionary one, both in the political and social sense. David Roediger’s Seizing Freedom shares this perspective and expands its description of “revolutionary time” to include suffragists, labor and immigrant rights activists beyond the typical protagonists of such history: Radical Republicans, abolitionists and, of course, the slaves themselves. The entire picture amounts to what Roediger has recovered from a rich and incredibly well-documented collection of primary and secondary sources as a period of “Jubilee,” a joyous era of emancipation, the ripple effects of which could be found in the struggle for women’s suffrage, as well as Marxist and Anarchist-inspired movements for the 8-hour workday.

In many ways, Roediger’s study is a spin-off of the “self-emancipation” concept originally developed by W. E. B. Du Bois’s in his classic Black Reconstruction. The major premise here is that slaves conducted a “general strike” against the Slaveocracy, withholding – before and during the course of the War – their labor through various means of escape, resistance and taking-up of arms in the struggle against the Confederacy. In its current iteration, the thesis is a challenge to titans in the field, such as the brilliant James M. McPherson, whose “Who Freed the Slaves?” answers with a resounding “Abraham Lincoln.”

As I understand his argument, Roediger poses “self-emancipation” against the “Great Man” thesis not by way of absolutely negating Lincoln’s important role in prosecuting the revolutionary struggle against the Confederacy. Rather, borrowing from Byron’s dictum that “…who would be free, must themselves strike the blow” and Frederick Douglass’s understanding that power concedes nothing without a demand, Seizing Freedom challenges us to see beyond Lincoln’s role as the “Great Emancipator” – “shorthand,” Roediger argues, for impoverishing all [the] movements” addressed under the rubric of Jubilee. He identifies the North’s victory in the largely anonymous freedmen, women and allied whites in the abolitionist movement, without whose pressure and resolve the North would not have unleashed the war’s revolutionary potential. As he quotes Douglass in the introductory chapter, “We are not to be saved by the captain, but by the crew.”

Douglass and Du Bois are stand-out figures in this book, and while I have a few outstanding questions about their / Roediger’s “self-emancipation” thesis, Roediger has left me with a much deeper interest in both of his subjects’ thought and activism. Victoria Woodhull’s sister, Tennessee Claflin, has also stood out for me as an interesting subject of deeper study, a militant socialist who at the head of an African-American militia marched with the Irish nationalists, and with the International Workingman’s Association in commemoration of the Paris Commune. 

I have highlighted Union Leagues, Disability Studies (a relatively new field of study it seems), the Civil War Veterans pension program and rifts between the Womens Suffrage and Abolitionist movements broadly as additional focuses for further research. I also appreciated several parallels that Roediger implicitly draws to today’s political environment: (a) the tendency of social movements to break-apart into sectarian or sectoralist milieus during historical troughs (anti-Revolution Time, as Roediger might say) and (b) the tendency of those movements to compromise principled independence when their strength appears to be waning (a la the Suffragists under Anthony and Stanton when they approached the reactionary Democratic Party).

In summary, I found the book to be readable, engaging, conceptually rich, and considering the weight given to such cultural artifacts as suffragist patches and wartime anti-racist envelopes, incredibly detailed. In the Acknowledgements section, Roediger thanks his graduate mentor Sterling Stuckey, an historian and Melville expert “who made this book possible”- remarkable, I think, given Roediger’s own ability to tell such a compelling story across high and low points of social and political history.

Brief Note from St. Peter (Fryer, that is)

Defenders of and apologists for the capitalist system of society have as little right to speak of the freedom of the individual as they have to speak of any other freedom. Under capitalism human individuality ‘becomes at once a commercial article and the fabric in which money operates’. Capitalism ‘estranges man from nature, from himself, his own active functioning… It is the alienation of man from man.’ Capitalism stifles men’s creative spirit, condemning the majority to a life of monotony, drudgery and ugliness—to life in a cage. It puts out the eyes of the painter and cuts out the tongue from the poet who is within each one of us. It butchers human nature on the altar of the machine and calls that progress….

Peter Fryer, “Freedom of the Individual” 

“The Unhappy Peninsula” (A fragment of research from The Long Fuse)

To anyone interested in the origins of the first World War, the question of Europe’s “Sick Man” – Turkey – must inevitably come up. I’m not exactly sure how the phrase was understood (if used at all) by European citizens in the late 19th / early 20th century, but among more recent scholarship (particularly in the work of Laurence Lafore, author of The Long Fuse), I would guess the fatal disease was, centrally, nationalism. Not Turkish nationalism alone, but the centrifugal nationalist tendencies arising from that complex arrangement of people’s within the former Ottoman Empire.

While the imperial Great Powers squabbled among themselves over divvying up the spoils of the Sick Man’s decaying Empire, a young Trotsky, recognizing the poison of nationalism, offered a democratic solution in counterposition to the classical bourgeois democratic aspirations of The Young Turks. Presciently, one will note, considering the horrors to arise throughout Europe just 5 years after his essay’s publication –

Only a single state of all the Balkan nationalities, on a democratic and federal basis similar to the Swiss or United States model, can bring internal peace to the Balkans and ensure the conditions for a broad development of its productive forces.

The “Young Turks” for their part definitively rejected this approach. Representing the dominant nationality and having their own national army, they hold to and remain national centralisers….

What will it [sic] happen to Turkey in the immediate future? It would be futile to try to guess. One thing is clear, which is that victory for the revolution will mean the victory of democracy in Turkey, democratic Turkey would be the foundation of a Balkan federation and this Balkan federation would clean out once and for all the “hornets’ nest” of the Near East, with its capitalist and dynastic intrigues which stormily threaten, not only this unhappy peninsula but the whole of Europe.
The Young Turks (marxists.org)